Friday, January 4, 2013

Lebanese and Palestinian jihadists in Syria

Last month's twin bombings in the Damascus-area neighborhood of Jaramana, inhabited mostly by members of the Christian and Druze minorities, have stoked fears of the growing role of extremists in the Syrian war. In next-door Lebanon, jihadists who have fought in Syria talk about their battles against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.


Last summer around the month of Ramadan, Abu Ghureir al-Traboulsi spent three months in Syria fighting the “holy war.” "Life on earth is hanging by a thread, the afterlife is the only thing that matters to me, and I can only reach it by waging jihad,” said the young man confidently during a recent interview.


Traboulsi and other jihadists are answering a call by hard-line clerics to enter the fight in Syria. In a video message last February, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda, called on militants in Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon to stand up and support their "brothers in Syria."


In recent months, news circulated of a migration to Syria of small groups of fighters comprised mostly of Sunni Lebanese as well as Palestinian refugees residing in Lebanon. Last April, Abdel Ghani Jawhar, a well-known member of radical Islamist group Fatah al-Islam, was killed in a alongside other rebels in Syria. Other members of the group, which fought a deadly war against the Lebanese army in 2007, were also reported to have spent time fighting in Syria. They were rumored to have joined the Abdallah Azzam brigades, another radical Palestinian group with ties to al-Qaeda that has claimed responsibility for several rocket attacks launched on Israel from southern Lebanon in the last few years. According to sources in Lebanon’s Palestinian camps, the men have since returned to Lebanon.


"Palestinian fighters provide logistical support to Syrian revolutionaries, training them on the use of IEDs as well as on the planning of car bombs,” says Hajj Maher Oueid, the leader of an Islamist party in the Palestinian camp of Ain al-Helweh in South Lebanon.


Abu Ghureir al-Traboulsi also fought alongside Fatah al-Islam during its war against the Lebanese army. Now his new frontline is Syria. Traboulsi, who is in his early thirties, says he is motivated by two powerful considerations: revenge and faith.  His father was tortured by the Syrian army in the 1980s during the Syrian military and intelligence apparatuses’ 30-year occupation of Lebanon. Joining the Syrian uprising against the Assad regime was for him the obvious next step. The ruling Assad family is mostly Alawite, an offshoot of Shiism, while the majority of the Syrian population is Sunni. According to Islamist sources in Lebanon, many other Lebanese have joined the uprising for religious reasons or due to family or tribal affiliations, especially those in border areas.


The open conflict between Shiite Iran and the mostly Sunni Arab countries has also emboldened Lebanese Sunnis to take sides in the Syria conflict. Since the 2005 assassination of Sunni Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, largely blamed on Shiite group Hezbollah—an Iranian and Syrian proxy in Lebanon designated a terrorist group by the United States—the Lebanese Sunni population has been slowly radicalizing. "The policy of Hezbollah targeting Sunnis in Lebanon is seen as a humiliation by all. The only way to stop it is to overthrow Assad,” said Taboulsi.


“There is a new holy war taking place in the region between Sunnis and Shiites. After Iraq, it is now taking place in Syria,” he added.


Taboulsi crossed the border into Syria, joining the Abu Walid battalion affiliated with the larger al Farouk brigade. The latter, a powerful unit within the rebel Free Syrian Army, is led by Abdul-Razzaq Tlass, the nephew of former Syrian Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass. Both units are mostly made up of Syrians, though they include a small number of Lebanese, Iraqis, Qataris and Kuwaitis. "These foreign militants are mostly of Syrian origin or married to Syrians," said Traboulsi. He participated in several military operations targeting Syrian army barracks as well as one on the headquarters of the Syrian Intelligence services.  Such attacks are usually planned by the FSA’s military council and facilitated by double agents, mostly soldiers still operating within the ranks of the regime forces.

While at the beginning of the uprising in Syria nearly two years ago, the role of jihadist fighters was only marginal, it seems to be growing every day along with the regime’s brutal response.

Taboulsi watches videos he has filmed in Syria of men carrying Kalashnikovs and RPGs, training or taking position around a tank.  

“Every evening we pray before we go to war against the Assad regime in order to be guaranteed a place in paradise if we die,” he says with a smile.  (Mona Alami, USA Today)

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